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City budget hearing offers suggestions, few answers 

City budget hearing offers suggestions, few answers 

Many residents came to city hall Tuesday night to make their case during the first of two public budget hearings.

With the city facing a budget crunch and cuts on the table, many residents came with appeals on why certain items should remain in the budget, like Westwood Golf Course. But with the city targeting $1.3 million in potential cuts, few came with ideas on what to cut.

Still, some suggestions were made, such as staff furloughs, ending free fire service to the University of Oklahoma, delaying some construction projects and ending the University North Park TIF.

As noted many times by the council over recent months, even with its stated intention to end the UNP TIF by June 30, ending it won’t fix the problem.

Council member Sereta Wilson said it comes down to needing more revenue and fewer expenses. While some recurring expenses are climbing naturally, other expenses were self imposed by the council, such as separation agreements with former city manager Steve Lewis and former city attorney Jeff Bryant. Those totaled nearly $700,000.

But like the University North Park sales tax allocations, those expenditures don’t speak to the root of the problem.

City Finance Director Anthony Francisco said the city faces a real, systemic challenge.

“There is an ongoing imbalance between our operational revenues and expenditures where our expenditures exceed our revenues,” he said. “We have to address that, both in the short term and the long term.”

He said the city has some major budget operational issues that the council will have to grapple with in the coming weeks and years, just as it has for the past few years:

• Imbalance between operational revenues and expenditures

• Lack of adequate funding for stormwater, fleet maintenance, park maintenance personnel

• Public Safety Sales Tax operations and capital shortfalls exacerbate problems in the general and capital funds

Those are just a few of the challenges the city needs to address all while exploring solutions for the imminent takeover of the CART bus system, which could bring the city’s projected budget hole to $1.8 million. Also, the city’s Public Safety Sales Tax account is projected to fall about $2 million short in FY 2020, even without staffing unfilled positions.

Norman isn’t the only city in the state grappling with budget challenges. Francisco said there’s a reason for that.

“In Oklahoma, property taxes cannot be used by cities for operational purposes,” Francisco said. “So, that is not a source of revenue to the general fund. Our revenue picture is kind of a two-legged stool if you will. We’re very dependent on sales and use tax for operational purposes.”

One Norman resident, John Frasure, offered a different kind of revenue solution.

“I would like to talk to you about bringing a lot of tourism money, tax money and any kind of money we can into Norman, Oklahoma,” he said.

The medical cannabis patient advocate said he is in negotiations with High Times magazine to bring Oklahoma’s first Cannabis Cup to Norman.

Others looked to the council for answers. They didn’t have many, at least not yet.

Mayor Lynne Miller said the council is looking at capital expenditures, staff positions, and pretty much everything. But she hinted that the cuts may not need to be as deep as previously pondered.

“I don’t see the council leaning one way or the other right now” Miller said. “We’re just at the beginning of the formal process.”

While council member Robert Castleberry insisted he would never vote for an unbalanced budget, he too offered a glimmer of optimism.

He said the city came in about $1.2 million under budget last year. He said the city can find solutions, and if it uses savings from last fiscal year it may not have to make drastic cuts.

“The myth that we lose money every single year is just not true,” he said. “We can take in less than we spend. We’ve done it. We did it last year … I think all of these draconian, drastic cuts are not necessarily something we have to look at … This year may not be the year we do all those drastic cuts.”

Council member Alex Scott said the reality is cuts are likely and they probably won’t be popular.

“Those cuts are going to come from somewhere,” she said. “So, somebody’s not going to be happy, probably a lot of people.”

The council is slated to continue budget discussions with a study session on enterprise funds on April 30, a council budget conference on May 14, a second public budget hearing on May 28, and an optional council budget study session on June 4.

The budget is scheduled to come before the council for adoption on June 11.

• Exploring charter changes: The council voted unanimously Tuesday to establish a Charter Review Commission to consider possible amendments to the city charter. The commission includes 17 community members, some of whom — Shon Williamson-Jennings, Greg Jungman, Tom Hackelman, Aysha Prather, Victoria McBride, Jim Eller, Bryan Vinyard, Judith Maute — were added via amendments Tuesday. The other members of the commission are "Midway" Bob Thompson, Richard Stawicki, Kenneth McBride, Kevin Pipes, Doug Cubberley, Harold Heiple, Trey Bates, Carol Dillingham and Jim Griffith.

Wilson noted that Tuesday’s vote was to send the recommendations on to a citizen committee, not to approve charter changes, which would ultimately have to go to a vote of the people. Council member Stephen Tyler Holman added to that, saying that he doesn’t necessarily agree with all of the proposals, but this is a good opportunity for the commission to consider possible changes.

Quarterly public hearings will be held and updates will be provided to the council during a regularly scheduled study session on a quarterly basis once the committee begins meeting. All Charter Review Commission meetings will be open to the public.

• City manager search nearing conclusion: Following Tuesday’s meeting, the council met in executive session to continue discussion about the field of finalists to replace interim City Manager Mary Rupp. Rupp was appointed interim city manager in September and has no desire to pursue a permanent position with the city.

• Roll call: Council member Joe Carter was absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

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